Globe Editorial

Secret order gives military too much leeway on covert ops

May 31, 2010

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A SECRET directive authorizing clandestine actions by US armed forces in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia reflects a can-do attitude in the upper echelons of the US military, but it sets a dangerous precedent.

As The New York Times reported Tuesday, the classified order, signed in September by General David Petraeus, allows the military to conduct a wide range of covert operations on foreign soil without having to receive a presidential order for each one. Not only will generals of the US Central Command be deciding when and how to strike anti-American terrorist groups; they will also have blanket authority to run the kinds of operations traditionally assigned to the CIA — operations that, when they occurred, had to be authorized by the president himself.

The order suggests that the military has prevailed in an institutional competition with the CIA. But the Obama administration would be better served by promoting closer cooperation between the military and the CIA than by letting the Army take on espionage functions previously handled by CIA agents.

The harm done by this broad expansion of the Army’s mission is almost certain to outweigh any tactical benefits. The classified order reportedly creates a standing authority for US Special Operations forces to gather intelligence in friendly as well as unfriendly countries, to take covert action against terrorist or insurgent groups, and, as in the case of Iran, to prepare the ground for possible US combat operations. Such a sweeping grant of authority to military commanders could have unintended — and dire — consequences.

The order increases the likelihood that American military personnel taken captive abroad will be treated as spies rather than prisoners of war and deprived of Geneva Convention protections. Meanwhile, American civilians traveling or working in foreign countries — tourists, business people, journalists, scholars, members of human rights organizations — will be suspected, more than ever, of conducting espionage.

Petraeus’s order represents the culmination of a long struggle by the Pentagon to wrest responsibilities and money away from the CIA. But there are sound reasons to restrict the intelligence-gathering and covert actions of the military to the battlefield, and leave the nation’s main intelligence agency in charge of covert operations in other areas. Whatever the failings of the CIA, its actions are subjected to presidential approvals and congressional scrutiny.

In effect, the Obama administration has significantly expanded the number of people with the ability to order covert operations, and transferred some authority over covert operations from the highest civilian officials to military commanders at a somewhat lower level. Giving carte blanche to the military for actions in foreign lands distorts a basic strength of American democracy: civilian control of the military. President Obama should keep that authority where it belongs, with himself.

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